Why we cannot be ‘progressive except for Palestine’

I was one of the politically active students at the Orthodox Jewish school I attended from prep to Year 12. Many of the students who were vocal about politics tended to be centrist or right-wing, claiming this was because centre-right governments were better, and safer, for Jews. I saw myself differently. I went to protests about human rights and animal rights and I wrote letters to the editors of newspapers about LGBT+ issues. In my mind, these were left-wing causes. I felt passionately about the treatment of First Nations peoples and other peoples facing occupation and oppression, except for one: Palestinians. In that way, I was just like the centrist and right-leaning members of my community.

From a young age, I was taught about the Jewish exodus while the 1948 Palestinian exodus and Nakba was erased. We weren’t taught about any trace of solidarity between Jews and Arabs. My school taught us about Jewish laws, commandments and values alongside what was described as a love for the State of Israel. This love was decontextualised from historic facts and evidence, requiring individuals to go on their own pathways of learning, much like non-Indigenous people in Australia having to relearn history after a predominantly racist schooling experience and childhood. Not many chose to take this journey, unfortunately, including those who considered themselves progressive.

Jewish people who consider themselves progressive or ‘liberal’ often have left-wing views on Australian and international politics with the exception of Israel/Palestine. This is also common among non-Jewish progressives. I just didn’t have a name for it. I finally found it in my thirties, in Angela Davis’ 2016 book, Freedom is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine and the Foundations of a Movement, where she quotes Rebecca Vilkomerson’s description of people in the US who are ‘progressive except for Palestine’.

The concept resonated strongly with what I was seeing amongst Jewish and non-Jewish progressives. I reached out to Dr Alana Lentin, Associate Professor of Cultural & Social Analysis at the University of Western Sydney, for her insights. She told me:

Many people who consider themselves progressive or left-leaning, but who have a poor understanding of the entangled histories of race, colonialism and antisemitism, believe that it could be construed as antisemitic to criticise Israel. This in itself is an antisemitic mindset because it forces an identification of all Jews with Israel thus denying our right to exist as Jews everywhere in the world and not to be associated with the actions of a racist colonial state.

Too often, the conflation of criticism of Israel with antisemitism prevents important discussions and debates from taking place. The Australia Palestine Advocacy Network (APAN) and the Australian Jewish Democratic Society (AJDS) recently worked together and released a joint statement that challenges the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, which includes the following: ‘Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor’.

At the event that launched the AJDS-APAN statement, the Jewish and Palestinian speakers described how this definition is ‘weaponised’ to supress criticism of Israel. This echoes the phrasing of the American attorney, Kenneth Stern, who initially drafted the IHRA definition and now has concerns about right-wing Jewish groups deciding to ‘weaponize it’, attack academic freedom and harm not only pro-Palestinian advocates but Jewish students and faculty. Jews who speak out against Israel are often labelled self-hating Jews, ostracised within the Jewish community and are sometimes called Kapos, a particularly vile term.

I spoke to Dr Jordy Silverstein, a historian based in Melbourne, who told me there are many reasons as to why Jews exclude Israel/Palestine from their activism.

So many of us are raised in Zionist households and and communities and it’s hard to break out of that. It takes a lot of work, a lot of challenging oneself, a lot of thinking creatively and listening to people who you’ve become accustomed not to listen to (i.e. people you’ve been taught not to listen to). [There’s also] the long aftermath of Holocaust trauma … and there’s the fact that the nation-state is sold to so many people (not just Jews!) as the only possible source of self-determination. It’s devastating to me that the history of Jewish thinking about self-determination, the history of the ways that Jews have grappled with how to live in the world and live amongst others, and grow and flourish amongst others, has been covered over. The nation-state as the ultimate end-point is held up as the only option: the multiplicity of options for what else there could be are foreclosed. Everyone should read Daniel Boyarin, Jonathan Boyarin, Ella Shohat, Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz and Loolwa Khazoom and all the others who write on this, and learn about Jewish Diasporism. There’s so much beauty in there! But not enough people are given the opportunity to find and learn from these texts.

I asked Dr Silverstein what she thinks of the particular phenomenon of progressivism that excludes the Palestinian cause. ‘Progressive Except for Palestine is a furphy, it’s a cop-out, it’s a false pretence,’ she replied. ‘It’s a way of pretending that one has ‘good politics’ without actually having the politics or the analysis. We need to dismantle it as a category.’

The divide within Jewish communities globally is more evident than ever, particularly as organisations scramble to release statements about Black Lives Matter. Some centrist and right-wing Jewish communities have identified Black Lives Matter as an ‘antisemitic organisation’ and accused protestors of ‘weaponized intersectionality’ and ‘incitement’ due to their comparisons between the Black Lives Matter Movement and the plight of Palestinians. Some progressive Jewish organisations have released statements in support of Black Lives Matter that do not mention Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, despite the recent murders of Iyad Halak and Ahmed Mustafa Erekat by Israeli Border Police.

There have been Jewish organisations and individuals that spoke out against annexation of the West Bank, against the occupation and in support of divesting from police. However, these global organisations are disparate. As a result, individuals may not find and connect with like-minded communities, which weakens efforts to build a united Jewish response alongside Palestinian solidarity movements.

After the AJDS-APAN statement was released, the Australian Jewish News (AJN) responded with an article and headline that referred to it as a ‘gross misrepresentation’ of the IHRA definition. The AJN claims to conduct its journalism based on the Australian Press Council’s guidelines, which include fairness and balance, but there does not seem to be room for criticism of Israel in its pages apart from the occasional letter to the editor. One of the speakers at the AJDS-APAN event, Vivienne Porzsolt – deputy convener of BDS Australia and spokesperson for Jews Against the Occupation – said that some Jewish people ‘instinctively experience attacks on Israel as a direct attack on them as Jews.’

The fear of antisemitism may stem from trauma and an increase in antisemitic attacks, ensuring that Jewish people remain attached to Zionism as ‘self-determination’ and continue their ongoing support of the State of Israel. However, as Porzsolt explained, ‘there are politically and morally acceptable ways to claim our place as a people without trampling on the rights of another people who had no role in our historic oppression.’ Progressive movements could do more to call out antisemitism in left-wing spaces, acknowledge fears, increase trauma sensitivity, and promote Palestinian rights through the lens of Jewish values.

At the AJDS-APAN event, Nasser Mashni – vice president of APAN and son of a Palestinian refugee – said ‘we believe in the liberation of everyone. We understand the need to oppose all forms of discrimination including antisemitism. It’s a moral imperative for us to stand against it with our Jewish friends and for our solidarity not to waver.’

When I listened to the speakers, I thought back to my schooling. I was taught, with my peers, that Palestinian land was our land. That ‘Never Again’ refers to the Holocaust, not to the treatment of First Nations and Indigenous peoples by the British, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, French and other colonisers, and certainly not to the treatment of Palestinians by the Israelis.

It’s not enough for progressives to oppose Israel’s actions silently anymore, particularly with the potential annexation of the West Bank, which would give Israel sovereignty over illegal settlements, the ‘friendship’ between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Donald Trump, and the bias of Western media.

Porzsolt’s words will continue to echo with me. ‘Silence is consent,’ she said, ‘and we must use our undoubted influence in Israel to push for a peace based on justice, human rights and mutual acceptance and respect.’ As Dr Silverstein reminded me, ‘there’s a large Jewish community in Melbourne, across Australia, and around the world that is keen to learn and grow and change and work with others for justice in Palestine. I wish people could see the beauty in these forms of Jewishness, in these forms of working alongside Palestinians, and not worry so much about what their family/friends think of them.’

There’s no excuse or reasonable justification not to add our voices to the cause. Let’s dismantle the notion that we can be progressive except for Palestine once and for all. It’s not possible to be progressive without fighting for everyone.


Image: the Qalandiya checkpoint, Flickr

Roz Bellamy

Roz Bellamy is a freelance writer passionate about creativity, human rights and mental health. Their work has been published in the Guardian, the Sydney Morning Herald, SBS and Meanjin. They are the online editor at Archer Magazine and a PhD candidate at La Trobe University. They are working on a memoir about gender diversity, Jewish identity and mental illness.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. Good piece. However, people shouldn’t forget that the Jewish community around the world, including Australia has been bullied into compliance for decades to take a party line, but a huge personal price is paid for dissidence. There’s a danger of thinking that this is a new issue, but in fact, it is very familiar. It is far, far more than “not worry[ing] so much about what their family/friends think”. This completely underestimates the toll that being on the outer in a fiercely Zionist community.

    There is a new biography of corporate lawyer and lobbyist Mark Leibler being released this week. He has both championed right wing Israel and Australian Indigenous rights (how is that for contradictions ). In the book a letter from 1992 is cited in which I was called an “enemy of the Jewish people”, and that helps to explain other political hostility for taking a progressive stand by a range of other organisations. That is because I wrote a letter to the Age critical of the party line on Israel.

    Thus, it hurts to see something written about me nearly 30 years ago, and hurts very badly to have that kind of defamatory remark repeated because the book is about to be released. I am sure there are more parts of the book that show similar contempt for political progressives in the Jewish community.

    Thus, I hope that people realize that the struggle for justice for Palestinians by progressive Jews is nothing new, but it can come at a very large personal price for decades of one’s life. I think here of people who were active in what the Australian Jewish Democratic Society, or left-Zionist circles in Israel (I think that anti-Zionist Matzpen was only known to one or two people). We should in fact honour the efforts of people in decades past, going back to at least the time of the Six Day War. By today’s exacting and I think often intolerant standards for the correct position on Israel/Palestine, it would be easy to rip them to shreds. However, it needs to be remembered that many of the activists in the past-in fact most- were not educated in critical theory or postcolonial studies, if at all in the humanities.

    Of course, the majority were quite traditional men, but there were activist women as well (sorry folks, pronouns were not part of the discussion). Some of their views came out of experiences in Nazi Germany, time spent in Israel/Palestine in the 40s and 40s, or their experiences in the Communist Party which they all left (but got ASIO files). There was no such thing as social media. There were small magazines, and copies of the Manchester Guardian or the BBC World Service.

    I suspect their political stand would be regarded as suspect and ‘Zionist’, in terms of the privileged and I think increasingly exclusionary and self-referential intellectual analysis that floats around today (yes, I am a privileged ageing academic who needs to deal with the post-modern on a daily basis). Their knowledge was rooted in empirical experience far beyond the campus. By the standards of the period, they were radical in supporting the left side of Israeli politics, even engaging with the exiled Palestinian leadership.

    Now, as for the point about Diasporism which is raised in the article – this is very much idealism for the privileged who have the learning and resources to set up an independent cultural / religious identity. Diasporism, if it can exist, really only has a place in a country like the US with an entirely different Jewish population and resource base to that in Australia. The fact is that there are I think about 6 million Jewish Israelis – about 50% of those in the world. Whatever the future holds without Zionism, and whatever the shape of the future state(s) formation, the majority will stay in that place.

    Hebrew language and culture, even if in translation, are part of the story of the Jewish community internationally, and certainly a knowledge of pre-modern Hebrew is really necessary if you want to act and believe independently.

    In fact, Jewish Israelis and Jews in the rest of the world are part of a global Jewish culture that has emerged since the Enlightenment which spans a variety of national origins, cultures and languages, in the so-called East and West. We are all connected.

    For those who are believers, they share the same Hebrew Bible, prayerbook, and much the same rituals, and holiday and this also underpins a cultural commons for other Jewish denominations and practices, however, experimental. They even set the frame or knowledge for most secular of Jews, Zionist or otherwise- call it global multiculturalism if you want. .
    To think you can set up a viable diaspora alternative akin to what was talked about in anti-Zionist Yiddish speaking circles (Doykeit-Yiddish for ‘hereness’), in decades past – is irrelevant in a globalised world (assuming we re-connect after COVID). It’s a sort of provincial anti-globalism hung up about the emergence of modern Hebrew-speaking culture because of the sins of Zionism and in the past, the ‘negation’ of the validity of existence outside the Zionist state. Of course, those days are now over.

    1. just leaving a comment here for others who might encounter this and be confused by the misunderstanding being made – I’d really encourage you to read some of the diasporist writers who I mentioned, who write about diaspora as being about creating a home located in networks, in connections, across and around the world; as a sense of belonging which is not attached to living in any one place, but in living within the networks of connection. It’s about Jews living in all sorts of places. It’s a very different understanding of ‘diaspora’, wherein there isn’t a home and a diaspora, but instead everywhere that people live is diaspora, and there’s no one home. It’s both utopian and already being enacted in all sorts of ways, and it’s beautiful.

  2. Your article comes at a time, when I feel that resistance against any normal equality and human rights respecting solution for Palestinians are trampled away in a self-rightousness, that is utterly concerning. Thank you so muc for that. I am non-Jewish, raised Christian.

  3. Jordy Silverstein states: “It’s devastating to me that the history of Jewish thinking about self-determination, the history of the ways that Jews have grappled with how to live in the world and live amongst others, and grow and flourish amongst others, has been covered over. The nation-state as the ultimate end-point is held up as the only option”. Does that mean that Jordy is also against the Paslestinian peeople’s right to self determination? If not then she has fallen into the same trap that the APAN-AJDS Statement seeks to highlight.

  4. Roz I really would like to dispoute your claim that “Jewish people who consider themselves progressive or ‘liberal’ often have left-wing views on Australian and international politics with the exception of Israel/Palestine.”
    The progressive left wing Jews both in Ausralia, USA England and Israel are also progressive about Israel/Palestine. But many would disagree with the infantile leftist position that Jews have no right to self determination/or the nation state is a colonial construct while at the same time advocating for a Palestinian State from the “River to the Sea”!

  5. Thanks, Roz Bellamy, for a valuable and useful article.

    I agree that the fear of being (or of being accused of being) antisemitic inhibits many otherwise progressive people from expressing solidarity with the Palestinians.

    That’s why the statement you mention drawn up by AJDS and APAN is so very welcome. Calling out Zionist racism is not the same as being antisemitic.

    It is ironic but not surprising that Israel finds it easier to cohabit with genuine antisemites like the Hungarian PM Viktor Orban that with lifelong anti-racists like, say, Jeremy Corbyn.

    I would, however, suggest an additional reason for the unwillingness to support the Palestinians among otherwise progressive people.

    For gatekeepers in mainstream political parties or in the upper levels of the public service, of corporations and even of NFPs, a person’s loyalty to Israel serves as a litmus test of loyalty to the system as a whole, and to the US alliance more specifically.

    Minor criticisms are allowed. Labor, for example, has condemned the planned annexations on the West Bank. But for a Labor MP to go further and support the Palestinian right to return, for example, would be to bring the party machine down on their head.

    If Albanese were to tolerate even one federal MP with a clear pro-Palestine positions, Labor’s suitability to serve as an alternative government, with access to Five Eyes intelligence briefings, would be called into account.

    On a final note, as one who stood against the stream in the Jewish community from the 1970s, it is heartening to see the growing number of young Jewish people prepared to stand on principle and risk the wrath of the community.

    Israel’s cruelty and racism is undercutting its base in the Diaspora, which helps explain the frantic desire to smear all critics, including Jewish critics, as antisemites.

  6. Thank you Roz. My thoughts exactly.
    I come from a family of four generations of members of the Jewish Labour Bund and/or its youth organisation SKIF. In recent years I’ve been surprised and disappointed at the lack of criticism of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians by the Bund in Melbourne.
    Historically the Bund has been non-Zionist. One of its founding principles is Doikait (Yiddish for ‘Hereness’) where Jewish culture is to be practiced and maintained anywhere in the world where Jews live. In Melbourne now those of us who do not support Israel as a Jewish state have become persona non grata to the Bund.

  7. The problem here is a general one – not being able to hold in mind more than one view, “left” and “right”, “pro-Palestinian” and “pro-Israeli”. Such polarized thinking means you do not have space to consider the predicament of the “Other,” and can therefore not be a generator of good ideas. On the progressive side, it is not possible to consider the failings of the Palestinian side or the legitimate concerns of the Israeli. On the right – the reverse is true. One side or the other is silenced.

    A question for those who wish to advocate change in the Middle East, for those who think the problem can be described as “racism” – What would you like to see happen? And what would be the consequences on the ground for the real people who live there?

  8. In Israeli I would like to see democracy with all the
    inhabitants given equal status as well as equal rights. The
    Palestinians must be given their freedom either by having a
    truly viable sovereign State of their own, or full rights as
    Israeli citizens. For that to happen the Israeli voters
    would have recognized the merit of this. There would be peace, freedom from oppression for the Palestinians and an
    ease within Israeli society, being released from the burden of repressing another people.

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